Freeze will not warm swing voters

The Government cut to the heart of what many left-of-centre voters want by declaring war on high-level, state-funded pay packets this week.

But the moves will do nothing to cut into the support base of its major political opponent.

Two measures were broadcast - an MP pay-freeze announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday, and State Services Minister Chris Hipkins' Tuesday announcement to stop bonuses for public-sector chief executives.

MPs' pay is set by the Remuneration Authority, based on a 2015 formula pegging MP salary rises to other public sector increases - a rise of about 3% was due this year. Reviewing the existing remuneration formula is sensible and drew immediate cross-party support.

But there was another narrative running through the Prime Minister's press conference - that it was not OK for high earners to get pay increases when other people were struggling on far lower wages.

''We do not believe, given that we are at the upper end of the scale, that we should be receiving that sort of increase,'' Ms Ardern said.

Mr Hipkins made a similar argument on Tuesday, calling his announcement ''largely symbolic'' as it would only save a few million dollars annually. While the Government wanted to raise the pay of low-income earners, ''we also do want to see some downward pressure at the top,'' he said.

Ms Ardern also acknowledged the MP pay freeze was designed to send ''a strong signal about what our Government values'', rather than save a significant amount of money. While repeating those values certainly plays well to Labour's left-of-centre base, it does little to improve inequality, address the amount of state spending in New Zealand, or lift the country's low average wages. It will also have little impact on impressing the 45% of people who still see National, not Labour, as their party of choice.

That is a problem for Ms Ardern, as she will need more than a single-term of governing to implement the considerable changes she says the country needs. With National's polling so consistently high - despite having a largely unknown leader and no policies to speak of - the possibility Labour will lose power following the 2020 general election will be a real threat to its strategists.

Government support parties have historically suffered in subsequent elections and neither NZ First nor the Greens are polling at the sort of numbers necessary to provide a comfortable buffer for such a trend.

Instead, it is the soft centre Ms Ardern must target, the true swing voters, those 10 to 15 percentage points which can go with either major party. Too many of them - for Labour's liking - are sticking with National and Ms Ardern will not convince them otherwise with announcements that smack more of grandstanding than grand policies.

John Key claimed the centre of New Zealand politics when he rose to power. He introduced policies straight from the Labour play book, including free doctor visits for children and increases in beneficiary payments. He did so knowing he already had the firm support of his own base. He seemed happy to cop criticism from those further to the right who were calling for more traditionally right-of-centre ideals.

He wanted the middle and he got it by announcing policies his base may not have considered priorities. In doing so he raised his party's vote to more than 47% in 2011 and 2014, wrecking Labour's vote in the process.

Ms Ardern is yet to do the same. Perhaps it is time she took note of the John Key approach and announced a few policies which may cause her own base to flinch while impressing the centre and right-of-centre voters.

If she does she may start to see her party's numbers increase while cutting into National's support base.


The hardcore right constituency cannot abide the concept of Public Service, which is 'Government, Civil Service, Wellington'..

This move has wider support than you suggest.